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B’reishit: Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

“Cain and Abel: A Teaching on Generosity”


    Abel was a Shepherd and Cain tilled the soil. And it was, after the passing of days, that Cain brought some of the fruit of the soil as an offering to the Eternal; and as for Abel, he too brought [an offering] from among the choice firstlings of his flock… The Eternal had regard for Abel and his offering, but had no regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was filled with rage; his face fell. The Eternal One said to Cain, “Why are you so angry? Why your fallen face? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin is a demon crouching at the door; you are the one it craves, and yet you can dominate it.”… But then it was, when they were out in the field that Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:2-9)

There is no doubt that Cain’s fratricide deserves our most forceful condemnation. Cain is warned by God not to yield to the demon of jealousy, but he miserably and most devastatingly fails, and kills his brother without, it seems, the slightest sense of remorse. And if we limited ourselves to the literal reading of the text, our case against him would be closed just as fast as we opened it. But if we go a little deeper, the story is not as black and white as it seems. There may be extenuating circumstances to Cain’s actions that we need to consider. For one thing, God seems to bear some responsibility, having set up a classic case of sibling rivalry by accepting one brother’s gift while shunning the other’s. Cain’s temper tantrum following the incident should have been a red flag telling God to ease up, but instead God’s infuriating response (“Why are you so angry?”) followed by a lecture that seems to blame Cain for what happened only adds fuel to Cain’s inner fire. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude, therefore, that Cain was provoked, that he was set up by God; and that while he remains guilty, God also should be charged with accessory to murder.

But there is a deeper level yet to this story. A careful reading of the text reveals that while Abel brought the choicest of his possessions as an offering, Cain only brought “some of the fruit of the soil.” Cain, whose name means “to acquire/gain/possess/own,” has a pronounced selfish bent that causes him to withhold his giving.  While Abel, whose name means “vaporous/impermanent/empty/unsubstantial,”(1) understands—as his name reveals—the true nature of reality, knows that everything belongs to God, Cain does not. He keeps the best for himself, and God can’t approve of his half-hearted offering. He tells Cain: “Why are you so angry? You know what you did. You have let your ego, your greed, dominate you. You harbor the vain illusion that anything in this world could be your possession. You do not have to lose face ‘if you do right,’ if you bring the right offering. ‘But if you do not do right,’ if you do not bring the right offering, it is a sin.”

The Hebrew word translated as “sin” is actually an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” To sin is to act from a place of forgetting, of ignoring the true nature of Reality, the Oneness that is All. A sinful act feeds our egotism, our illusion of separateness, and drives us away from our Divine center. It is our false sense of self that pushes us to possess “stuff,” dominate people, or control our environment as a validation of our illusory existence as a separate being. God told Cain that he could overcome this egocentric, avaricious trait not by trying to kill it in himself—for this only reinforces it—but by acting out the opposite character trait—that of generosity—by bringing full offerings. Sadly, Cain didn’t listen, and the story ends in tragedy for both his brother and he.

God’s “lecture” to Cain is a prime teaching on how to overcome our own inclination toward greediness and jealousy through acts of generosity and trust. Not engaging our sinful proclivities causes them to, ultimately, shrink into oblivion like a weed we simply stopped watering. Generous acts support our returning to the Source of our being, to the selfless heart at the center of the One we are.